Image to remember from the black hole milestone

Top News | AGENCIES 12 Apr 2019

It's a picture that's been sent and resent so many times on social media ever since a bunch of scientists said they've come up with the first photograph of a black hole - that of a young woman, hands clasped over her mouth, seemingly amazed and excited to share a secret.

She is Katie Bouman - a Massachusetts Institute of Technology post-doctoral student who developed an algorithm that was essential for devising the imaging methods.

Bouman's algorithm was not the only one used - the black hole photo was an amalgam of images generated by multiple algorithms, blended together.

"No one of us could've done it alone," said Bouman, 29, who will serve as an assistant professor at the California Institute of Technology in the fall.

Bouman created the algorithm when she was a grad student at the computer science and artificial intelligence center of MIT. It stitched together data collected from radio telescopes scattered around the globe, through a collaboration, called the Event Horizon Telescope.

The project offers scientists a new way to study the most extreme objects in the universe predicted by Einstein's general relativity theory.

"It's incredibly exciting," Bouman said. "The goal was to see this thing that was essentially impossible to see, about the size of an orange on the moon."

The image reveals the black hole at the center of Messier, a massive galaxy in the Virgo galaxy cluster. The black hole is located 55 million light-years from Earth and has a mass 6.5 billion times that of the sun.

The glowing ring surrounding the "event horizon" around a black hole is not exactly a photo, but pixels pieced together using the algorithm.

The project succeeded because of international cooperation among 20 countries and about 200 scientists at a cost of up to US$60 million (HK$468 million).

To get an image of a faraway black hole, scientists had to get eight radio telescopes on several continents, including Antarctica, to look at the same place at the same time. In getting the instruments connected, they essentially created one Earth-size connected telescope The amount of data generated was so massive that it could not be transmitted over the internet, so it was flown to data centers by jet.

The data collected was equivalent to a lifetime collection of selfies from 40,000 people.

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